PARTING SHOT: Leave the Heckling at Home

On Dec. 2, 2009, the small world of Ivy League squash was thrust into the national spotlight. The Harvard men’s and women’s teams traveled to Hanover, N.H., where they were greeted with a barrage of profanity-laced abuse from a section of the Dartmouth crowd. An article in the Valley News, a local New Hampshire paper, described the episode, and the story blew up from there. The match received so much attention that Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim issued an apology to Drew Faust for the incident.

At first, some media outlets took a humorous approach to the reporting of the story, painting a picture of oversensitivity and overreaction. Dartmouth junior and varsity soccer player Bryan Giudicelli, who was involved in the heckling, claimed that asking Crimson co-captain Frank Cohen if he liked bagels was only a reference to the fact that Cohen was being shut out at the time. “There was no anti-Semitism behind that,” Giudicelli said.

But further details of the crowd’s behavior suggest that it was not simply a big misunderstanding. It is difficult to see how, “Cohen, do you cheat at business too?” could have been a reference to the score. In addition, taunts of “fag” and “cocksucker” were hurled at the Harvard men, while members of the women’s team were called “sluts” and “whores.”

Giudicelli said that he and his soccer buddies were simply trying to recreate the harsh atmosphere they faced in road games and didn’t realize how their actions would appear in the context of squash.

It might just be my opinion, but I would offer Giudicelli some advice: homophobia, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism are not appropriate anywhere.

Now I must admit, I have a personal attachment to this episode of heckling gone too far. Frank Cohen is my roommate, and I am close friends with a number of other players on both the men’s and women’s squash teams. So yes, I took an interest in this incident as a friend.

But also, as a passionate sports fan, I have a stake in the larger issue of fan behavior.

I have been an ardent sports fan for as long as I can remember. When waking up early before school, most six-year old kids watch cartoons. I watched SportsCenter.

When one of my favorite teams is playing, you can usually find me screaming at the TV. Perhaps this is a function of parent indoctrination—my father taught me the J-E-T-S chant as soon as I was able to utter my first words—or perhaps it comes from living in London, where the fans at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane spend the entire 90 minutes of a match in unified song. Either way, I know what it means to root hard for your team.

Home-field advantage can be a major factor in sports. Crowds can swing games, even seasons, through support for their team. Sportswriters love using metaphors, and perhaps the most widely used is that of the crowd acting as an extra man on the field or court.

I understand that part of this advantage is acquired by creating an inhospitable environment for the visitors. Fans do not need to be censored, for example, when booing a visiting player shooting a free throw.

Far too often, though, fans seem to descend into unwarranted personal attacks. At their best, these jibes may get a few chuckles despite their immaturity and arrogance; at their worst, they cross into the territory of hate and prejudice.

Sports fans like to refer to their teams in the first person. After a big victory, we exclaim, “We destroyed them.” Casual observers may not understand, but it makes sense to us die-hards. Forget even the crowd’s massive impact on each game; professional teams simply could not exist without the financial support of their fans.

But in using first-person pronouns, we are accepting a responsibility as well. When we sit in the stands, we represent our team. When we show up at Harvard Stadium, Lavietes Pavilion, or Ohiri Field, we represent the institution of Harvard.

I’ve had the privilege of attending my fair share of Harvard sporting events—some as a writer, others as just a fan. For the most part, the Crimson faithful has been respectful. The vast majority of games conclude without serious incident. But the unfortunate truth is that Giudicelli’s characterization of the hostilities he faces on the road could certainly apply to some of what I’ve seen and heard.